The results of the California recall election won’t be known until Tuesday night. But some Republicans are already predicting victory for the Democrat, Gov. Gavin Newsom, for a reason that should sound familiar.
Soon after the recall race was announced in early July, the embers of 2020 election denialism ignited into new false claims on right-wing news sites and social media channels. This vote, too, would supposedly be “stolen,” with malfeasance ranging from deceptively designed ballots to nefariousness by corrupt postal workers.
As a wave of recent polling indicated that Mr. Newsom was likely to brush off his Republican challengers, the baseless allegations accelerated. Larry Elder, a leading Republican candidate, said he was “concerned” about election fraud. The Fox News commentators Tomi Lahren and Tucker Carlson suggested that wrongdoing was the only way Mr. Newsom could win. And former President Donald J. Trump predicted that it would be “a rigged election.”
This swift embrace of false allegations of cheating in the California recall reflects a growing instinct on the right to argue that any lost election, or any ongoing race that might result in defeat, must be marred by fraud. The relentless falsehoods spread by Mr. Trump and his allies about the 2020 election have only fueled such fears.
“I very honestly believe there were irregularities and fraudulent activity,” Elena Johnson, 65, a teacher in Los Angeles County who was in the crowd at a rally for Mr. Elder last week in Ventura County, said of the presidential contest last year. “It was stolen.”
Because of her concerns about voter fraud in the 2020 election, Ms. Johnson said, she would be casting her ballot in person on Tuesday instead of by mail. She said she was supporting the Republican because she thought California, her adopted home after immigrating from the Philippines 40 years ago, was on the brink. “California is where I came, and California is where I want to stay,” she said.
Since the start of the recall, allegations of election fraud have been simmering on social media in California, with daily mentions in the low thousands, according to a review by Zignal Labs, a media tracking agency.
But singular claims or conspiracy theories, such as a selectively edited video purporting to show that people with a post office “master key” could steal ballots, have quickly ricocheted around the broader conservative ecosystem. The post office video surpassed one million views, amplified by high-profile Trump allies and members of the conservative news media.
Nationally, Republican candidates who deny the outcomes of their elections remain outliers. Hundreds of G.O.P. candidates up and down the ballot in 2020 accepted their defeats. But at the same time, many of them joined Mr. Trump in the assault on the presidential race’s outcome, and in other recent election cycles, candidates, their allies and the conservative news media have increasingly expressed doubts about the validity of the electoral process.
And while false claims of wrongdoing have long emerged in the days and weeks after elections, Republicans’ quick turn in advance of the California recall — a race that was always going to be a long shot for them in a deep-blue state — signals the growing normalization of crying fraud.
“This is baked into the playbook now,” said Michael Latner, an associate professor of political science at California Polytechnic Institute. As soon as the recall was official, he added, “you already started to see stories and individuals on social media claiming that, you know, they received five ballots or their uncle received five ballots.”
Some Republican leaders and strategists around the country worry that it is a losing message. While such claims may stoke up the base, leaders fear that repeatedly telling voters that the election is rigged and their votes will not count could have a suppressive effect, leading some potential Republican voters to stay home.
They point to the Senate runoff elections early this year in Georgia, where two Republican incumbents, Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, were ousted by first-time Democratic challengers. Though the state had just voted Democratic in the presidential election for the first time in decades, the Senate races were seen as an even taller task for Democrats.
But in the months after the November general election, Mr. Trump fired off countless attacks against the legitimacy of the Georgia contests, floating conspiracy theories and castigating the Republican secretary of state and governor for not acquiescing to his desire to subvert the presidential election. When the runoffs came, more than 752,000 Georgians who had voted in November did not cast ballots, according to a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. More than half of those voters were from constituencies that lean toward Republican candidates, the review found.
“The person that they most admired in their conservative beliefs was telling them that their vote didn’t count,” said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan of Georgia, a Republican, referring to Mr. Trump. “And then the next day he would tell him that the election was rigged, and then the next day he would tell them, ‘Why even show up?’ And they didn’t. And that alone was enough to swing the election to the Democrat side.”
“This whole notion about fraud and elections,” Mr. Duncan continued, “it’s a shiny object that quite honestly is about trying to save face and not own reality.”
Republican officials in California have performed a balancing act, trying to acknowledge their voters’ worries about fraud while ensuring that the same voters trust the state’s vote-by-mail system enough to cast a ballot. Party officials have promoted mail voting on social media, and have leaned on popular members of Republican leadership, including Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, to cut videos preaching the security of voting by mail.
But some leading Republicans in the state have simultaneously denounced a bill passed by the State Legislature this month that would permanently enact a mail voting expansion that was introduced as an emergency measure in 2020. Republicans in the Legislature have continued to baselessly claim that mail voting invites fraud and that drop boxes remain unsecure.
“I can tell you story after story in my district,” State Senator Shannon Grove, a Republican from Bakersfield, said during a floor debate this month. She added that the Democrats who dominate the chamber would admit they had also heard complaints “if you guys were honest.”
The state Republican Party has also ramped up what it calls an election integrity operation, which aims to recruit more poll watchers and is directing voters to a hotline to send in complaints of fraud. The program, according to Jessica Millan Patterson, the chair of the state party, was designed to assure voters that the California election would be secure.
“My entire focus,” Ms. Patterson said in an interview, “is to build trust and faith within our process and make sure people are confident.” She added that she was not paying attention to the national conversation about voter fraud and that she was not worried about the Republican effort hurting turnout because “our No. 1 turnout operation is having Gavin Newsom as our governor every day.”
“I’ve always focused on California; everything outside of that is noise,” Ms. Patterson said. “We have to fix our own house before we can worry about what’s going on at the national level.”
Mr. Elder, the Republican challenger to Mr. Newsom who has claimed without evidence that there will be “shenanigans” in the voting process, has also set up a tip line for voters to offer evidence of fraud.
“We have a voter integrity board all set up — most of these are lawyers,” Mr. Elder said last week, according to CNN. “So when people hear things, they contact us. We’re going to file lawsuits in a timely fashion.”
The operations run by Mr. Elder and the California Republican Party closely resemble the one that the Trump campaign set up with the national G.O.P. during the 2020 campaign, which sought to recruit an “army” of poll watchers and prompted worries about intimidation of voters.
Some experts say that the rising popularity of such so-called election integrity operations risks further eroding trust in elections.
“The narrative that we need to build an electoral integrity force that is distinct from the state, and distinct from election officials, I think serves to undermine, and is designed to undermine, the credibility of professional election administrators,” Dr. Latner said.
These groups, he added, make it difficult “for election scientists and election administrators to work together and identify the real problems that we have with electoral integrity. Because there are real problems that need attention and need resources. They’re just not the ones that these people are complaining about.”
Mr. Elder initially staked out a position counter to those in his party who are focused on claims of fraud, telling a left-leaning editorial board over a month ago that he believed President Biden had won fairly last year. But after his campaign began to garner attention, he quickly reversed his position, telling conservative radio interviewers last month, “No, I don’t.”
Shawn Hubler contributed reporting from Sacramento, and Jeremy W. Peters from Los Angeles.